Mac Lab Report

Five Free Online Tools

- 2002.06.06

As I've been writing for Low End Mac, I've used a variety of tools to help me get my job done. This is a list of online tools I've found to be useful in teaching. Some of them would be useful to small business as well.

Funbrain.com

Although primarily targeted at lower grades, Funbrain features an online quiz tool called Quizlab that lets you write, administer, and score your quizzes online. It is primarily designed for multiple choice quizzes, although there are options for displaying and capturing open-response items. Multiple choice items can be configured as practice tests, revealing correct answers as you go, or as real tests, keeping answers hidden and providing online and/or emailed scores to the teacher.

For me, I think it is best used for practice tests, although I wish there were a few modifications to the interface. Among the minor improvements which would improve Quizlab:

  • larger fields for entry of questions and answers, so you can see everything you've typed before submitting it
  • the ability to clone quizzes and alter them for slightly different versions (Quizlab can already scramble choices)
  • download and upload text versions of quizzes for archival purposes (if you cut and paste, editing is a pain because of embedded spaces and tabs)
  • mixed quiz types (I'd like to give 10 multiple-choice questions and 2 open response on the same quiz, for example)

The only real problem I've had with Quizlab is that sometimes our proxy server stops responding (pretty much every day) or if we give a quiz online anytime around noon, for some reason all of our Internet connections bog down - must be a lot of people who surf high-bandwidth sites around noontime in our district. This makes Quizlab or any other high-stakes Internet activity unreliable and basically unusable in my 2nd or 4th period classes. I'm fairly certain this is a district problem and not a Quizlab problem.

We sure as heck wouldn't be able to use PowerSchool; it'd be a disaster laid at Apple's feet, and we've had enough of those to make using Macs strictly a defensive position. Anyway, Quizlab is useful if not perfect; if you've not done this sort of thing, take a look. There's another similar service called www.Schoolnotes.com that some of our other teachers use to build websites.

iTools

I love iTools. All my school sites are based there, and nothing beats the simple drag-and-drop upload and download built right into the operating system. I don't use my mail account service yet, and I've only sent a few iCards, but iDisk just rocks (when you can use it - in my district . . . you can guess the rest, can't you?).

Several of our PC using teachers (and my wife) swear by www.homestead.com, which has extensive site-building tools administered through your browser. iTools' Homepage function is easy, but it's not nearly as flexible as Homestead. I wish Apple would either rebuild Claris Home Page or ramp up Homepage (online) to compete in the middle web-page building space; they're losing education customers here, and their treatment of Claris Home Page and HyperCard both seem to indicate that they simply don't care about the growing base of experienced but not expert teachers on the Web. (That means you want more than a plain-text-and-picture website but you don't know HTML.)

Master.com

I learned about Master.com by following a link from one of Low End Mac's surveys. I've built a class evaluation form on it, and it works just great. It supports mixed question types, statistical reports, downloading captured data (such as people filling in email addresses to build mailing lists), and provides graphical feedback to the site manager. There's a lot there.

I haven't used it long enough to find anything significant to complain about, other than it has a rather technical interface and setup procedure, which you can figure out if you just read everything and pay attention. If you do evaluations or surveys, this is worth a look.

If only they supported scoring of multiple-choice items....

Cafepress.com

Okay, this one I told Dan about. Basically, you upload some graphics, and they produce on demand shirts, mugs, mousepads, hats, and so on bearing your logo. Mark up their prices and you've got yourself a little store. Here's mine: <http://www.cafepress.com/astroteacher/>, and here's Low End Mac's: <http://lowendmac.com/store.html> if you want to see some examples.

The good news is, it's easy to do and the products that I've seen look like high quality stuff. The bad news is the base price is fairly expensive, and unless you get a lot of traffic, don't look for a volume discount.

How can you use this for school? Imagine a "I survived Mrs. Smith's Biology Class" shirt sold as a fundraiser or a set of equations for AP physics: "You can wear the shirt on quiz days," or a club logo, or . . . see the possibilities?

Google

Who doesn't like Google? Who doesn't use it? I used to be a big fan of multiengine Dogpile, and I've dabbled with Sherlock, but Google is the search king right now. Take the time to embed a free search tool on your site from Google. If you don't host your own server, it's an easy way to go - and it helps get you indexed on Google, too, I'd expect. Check out this page for instructions: <http://www.google.com/services/free.html>

There's lots of other tools floating around out there. If you have something that works for you, don't keep it a secret.

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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